One theme underlying many, if not most, fairy tales and stories about quests is that of growing up. A hero or heroine sets out into the world to accomplish a specific task and is changed in the doing. So too is the unicorn. She has never had to worry about anything, but now she must confront a harsh reality. Immortality does have its drawbacks: The mortal world has changed beyond her knowledge. Almost no one cares who or what she is anymore, and the world turns out to be much uglier and colder that her protected forest. Her kind has already been forgotten, and she, who may be the last unicorn, could die out among humankind.
Still, there is a truth to be found, and she leaves her forest to find it. Her serene state is rapidly eroded, however, and the process occurs all the faster when she is turned into a human and becomes suddenly mortal and vulnerable. Knowledge of mortality—repugnant to her as an immortal—and the accompanying emotions enable her to change, the one thing of which immortals are incapable. In the end, the ability to change is what enables her to grow beyond herself and save her kind.
The Last Unicorn is, in many respects, a novel of self-discovery. The positive characters—especially L’r, Amalthea, and Schmendrick—all have to find something hidden in themselves, something that they will need in order to survive and grow. That quest is easier for some than for others, but they all manage to follow their dreams,...
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The Last Unicorn is probably Peter S. Beagle’s best-known work. It is regularly reprinted and has been translated into several languages. The novel speaks of inner truths and of a process of growing up that even adults continue to confront, themes that are also present in other works by the author. The fact that this story is not bound to any recognizable time, place, or culture adds to its universal appeal.
In addition to The Last Unicorn, Beagle has written such works as A Fine and Private Place (1960), I See by My Outfit (1971), The Fantasy World of Peter Beagle (1978), The Garden of Earthly Delights (1982), The Folk of the Air (1986), and The Innkeeper’s Song (1993). His screenplays include that for the animated film Lord of the Rings (1978). As with many popular novels, The Last Unicorn has also found its way to the film industry. In 1982, it was used as the basis for an excellent animated film (with an all-star voice cast), for which Beagle himself wrote the screenplay.